There’s been a run on pharmacies in Juarez, by El Pasoans and other U.S. citizens looking to buy hydroxychloroquine, one of the drugs the president has touted as a possible treatment for COVID-19.
The FDA issued emergency use authorization Sunday for hydroxychloroquine and a similar drug, chloroquine, to treat COVID-19 patients without the usually-required clinical trials. President Donald Trump has called the drugs a “game changer” during his White House briefings. But El Pasoans have been buying the drugs in Mexico for weeks now.
“They’re asking for it, but we don’t have any,” said pharmacy technician Blanca Rosales referring to Plaquenil, the brand-name for hydroxychloroquine.
She works at a pharmacy in downtown Ciudad Juarez, a block from the Paso del Norte international bridge where clusters of Mexican pharmacies cater to Americans who cross the border to save on prescription drugs. So many people from the U.S. side of the border routinely shop for their medication in Mexico that one pharmacy speaker blares “golden oldies” songs in English.
For weeks, pharmacies in Juarez have been dealing with a huge spike in requests for Plaquenil, which is an anti-malaria drug also used to treat the auto-immune disease, lupus as well as rheumatoid arthritis. Though there’s hope the drug can help COVID-19 patients breathe better and rid them of the virus, there’s no clinical proof yet. But that has not stopped people from buying the drug.
Some people from the U.S. side of the border bought several boxes of the medication in her pharmacy, said Hilda Rayos.
“Lots of boxes, some 10 or 15 at a time,” she said.
The hoarding has pharmacists in Juarez concerned for long-time patients prescribed Plaquenil for existing conditions.
“We’re taking away medication from people who really need it, “said pharmacy technician Carmen Zuniga.
The shortage has impacted lupus patients in particular.
“I was in shock. What am I going to do? “said Beatirz, a resident in Ciudad Juarez who did not want her last name used, for medical privacy reasons. She’s been prescribed Plaquenil for more than 20 years for lupus symptoms. In the last month, she has not been able to find one single box. She has called multiple pharmacies in Ciudad Juarez and even reached out to relatives in Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, about 275 miles away, to look for the drug. They said they knew of a pharmacy that had one box left.
Beatriz wants those who stockpiled Plaquenil out of fear to think about existing patients.
“These people bought a box just to have it in their drawer, maybe using it without needing it. And we need it. I’m not the only patient with this illness in the area. What are these people doing?”
In Ciudad Juarez, she is under a doctor’s care to monitor possible serious side effects of the drug, something health authorities on both sides of the border advise. They caution people not to self-medicate and to consult a doctor before taking Plaquenil for COVID-19.